Thai PM says may lift emergency decree as rival rallies rock nation
Pro-democracy protesters tear down sections of a barricade during an anti-government rally in Bangkok on October 21, 2020. AFP
Thailand’s embattled premier announced Wednesday he might lift an emergency decree that has failed to stifle a growing protest movement demanding he steps down and also reforms to the monarchy.
After a day of anti-government and rival royalist protests across the country, thousands of angry democracy activists marched on Government House, defying an emergency decree imposed last week banning gatherings of more than four people.
As they chanted for him to resign, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha addressed the nation, saying he would make "the first move to de-escalate" the situation. "I am currently preparing to lift the state of severe emergency in Bangkok and will do so promptly if there are no violent incidents," he said, without specifying any timeframe.
"We must now step back from the edge of the slippery slope that can easily slide to chaos," he added, calling on protesters to resolve their differences through parliament.
Democracy activists had massed at Bangkok's Victory Monument, while counter-rallies attracted thousands of royalists in the southern province of Narathiwat and scores more in the capital.
AFP journalists in Bangkok said some minor scuffles broke out between rival factions before thousands of pro-democracy activists set off towards the seat of the executive.
University student and activist Som, 20, told AFP he was sceptical the premier would follow through on his words. "I don't believe he will lift the emergency decree as he has set conditions," he said, adding the protesters must "keep up their demands".
Democracy activists have assembled daily in the capital since last week, flouting the emergency edict as their calls for Prayut to go intensified.
The former army chief masterminded the 2014 coup and protesters say the military-drafted constitution rigged last year's vote in his favour. Protesters are also demanding the powerful and ultra-wealthy monarchy stay out of politics -- a previously taboo subject.
The emergency decree was issued after a group of demonstrators surrounded the queen's royal motorcade, raising their arms in a three-fingered salute of defiance, inspired by the "Hunger Games" movies.
On Friday the use of force escalated as riot police deployed water cannon against the unarmed activists and scores of demonstrators have been arrested.
Earlier, Bangkok's criminal court backtracked on a ruling that ordered Voice TV -- partly owned by exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra -- to close over its coverage of pro-democracy rallies. The website was one of four media under investigation for violating computer crimes laws and an emergency decree aimed at curbing the civil unrest.
But the court revoked the ruling and allowed all four media, including The Standard, The Reporters and Prachathai, to continue reporting freely.
The court said there "must be specific content that is illegal and authorities cannot shut down a whole page or URL," Voice TV's lawyer Winyat Chartmontri told reporters.
"The court said people's freedom (of) communication must be protected and media outlets can not be shut down. Press freedom is very crucial," he said, adding that today's decision cannot be appealed.
Voice TV staff would continue their reporting duties "fully, professionally and factually", said a statement on the outlet's website. Sunai Phasuk from Human Rights Watch hailed Wednesday's court decision but warned journalists were still at risk.
Their presence on the ground at protests "is considered by police as violating the emergency decree. They are not out of the woods yet," he told AFP.
An activist, 26-year-old Nat, told AFP she was happy the court ruling about Voice TV had been overturned. "We will still have a TV channel that reports the truth," she said, urging for the freedom to protest to be returned too.